Saturday 17 March 2018

De Sousa comes good from wrong side of tracks

Jockey Silvestre de Sousa. Photo: PA
Jockey Silvestre de Sousa. Photo: PA

Oliver Brown

Silvestre de Sousa has earned a reputation as racing's lonesome cowboy. This is, in part, a recognition of his rarity value: a Brazilian who learned about horsemanship while rounding up cattle on the family ranch near Recife, but who stands next Saturday to be heralded as Britain's champion jockey for the second time in three years. It is also a reflection of a savage intensity. At 36, De Sousa exudes a desperation to prove himself that is far from normal.

Take his workload, for example. As of last night, he had managed 829 rides since the Flat season began in May, 207 more than his nearest pursuer, Jim Crowley. They are not all exactly gleaming thoroughbreds, either. De Sousa's last booked ride at Newmarket yesterday, Savannah Slew, was a 66/1 shot. Such are the vagaries of a freelancer's life. Having had his retainer wound up by Godolphin in 2014, De Sousa has since reinvented himself as the ultimate gun for hire.

It is a rare privilege for us that he has agreed to sit still for a morning. Usually he is tearing up a motorway, or mid-air between racecourses in a helicopter. At his cottage on the outskirts of Newmarket there is still a restlessness in his eyes, with four evening rides at Chelmsford ahead of him, but for a while he is content to reflect on an exotic and staggeringly unlikely path to success.

De Sousa has always considered himself an outsider. "It's funny," he says, grimacing at the chill in his garden. "I have been living in England for almost 13 years, but I still haven't adapted. This country would be one of the greatest places in the world if it had a roof on."

Having grown up the third youngest of 10 children in the province of Maranhao, in Brazil's far north, he is accustomed to a more tropical ambience. There, on his parents' farm, teeming with goats, pigs and donkeys, he would learn the art of the vaqueiros, herding cows on horseback. The local sport, vaquejada, involves a couple of cowboys pursuing a bull. De Sousa quickly came to understand the capricious equine temperament - "I know what horses want, what they need," he says - a career in racing, largely the preserve of Brazil's metropolitan elites, was hardly feasible.

Asked if people back home are aware of the significance of his feats, he replies, rather sorrowfully: "I don't think they are. My family are very proud, but racing in Brazil isn't as big as in England. In Brazil still, you are poor or you are rich. There's no publicity for racing. It's for the wealthy there. Despite the size of the country, there are only really two tracks: Sao Paulo and Rio. You have a few small, beaten-up country tracks, but they're very far apart."

That said, many of De Sousa's compatriots have shown the depth of talent belied by this lopsided system. Brazil can boast reigning champion jockeys in Uruguay, Argentina, Singapore and Hong Kong, and two stars in the USA. "Not so many here, though," De Sousa says. "A lot of Brazilians are stable lads, but they haven't had the chances I've had to make it as a jockey."

De Sousa was 22 when he decided to forsake South America for Dermot Weld's yard. His progress had been delayed by a couple of years working in a Sao Paulo furniture factory. His arrival in Co Kildare brought a deep and corrosive sense of alienation. He spoke no English, had no friendship group.

"It was very, very hard," he reflects. "It was all very strange, with the rain and 45mph winds. We live in a place where it's 35 degrees all year round. My brother, Roberto, came to stay for six months. But after just two he said: 'I can't do it. I'm done'."

Silvestre, evidently, is the stoic of the family, establishing a fearsome work ethic. He and his Irish wife Vicky have a 10-year-old son, Ryan. They met working in the same yard in Ireland. De Sousa toasted his first winner, on New Year's Day 2006 at Southwell, as his wife-to-be, herself a talented jockey, trailed behind in third.

But marriage and fatherhood have not quelled his impatience - his only days off this year have come when he has been banned. "I like to keep busy," he says. "People were telling me a month ago, 'Oh you've won the title'. But I was at Nottingham and Kempton Park on the same day this week and won four races. My target, for as long as I am able, is to ride 100 winners every year. You can't stop. Slow down, they'll pass you."

De Sousa is still scalded at having relinquished his 2015 crown to Crowley, who won 46 times last September to wrest the glory away. The only solution, in his eyes, was to toil ever harder. The variable quality of the horses available means that he does not have the most prolific strike-rate - 18 per cent against 23 per cent for Ryan Moore - but by ratcheting up the number of rides he can spread his bets.

Plus, he has an uncanny ability to extract the best out of horses deemed not to have a chance. At Goodwood in June, he completed a remarkable six-timer aboard Brian Meehan's I'vegotthepower in a one-mile handicap. "Oh, I got that horse home," he smiles, letting go of his scrupulous modesty for once. "That one was a great effort."

There are deeper motivations, however, behind De Sousa's refusal to let go. In particular, he shows a quiet anguish that his mentor, Fausto Durso, who first intuited his talents in Brazil, is not around to savour his feats. Durso was fatally stabbed in Sao Paulo in 2015. "There is a pain," he says.

Now, having climbed to a level it has taken him two decades to reach, he cannot relent. A quiet man, imbued with profound humility, he nonetheless craves a respect that is now surely his due. "I just think I'm hungrier than anyone else. It's good to be recognised, to be introduced somewhere and hear, 'This is Silvestre. This is somebody.'"


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